Theological Ghettos and Social Networking?

I will make no apology and state my case out from the outset: I love social media.

There, I’ve said it.  I’m out.  Social media is a fantastic way of passing on information, formulating new thoughts and ideas between groups.  It is a great for creating and sustaining communities that share and build upon each other’s ideas and experiences.  As a Christian it means that I can be a very visible part of a wider community: a worldwide communion of saints.  There are other people on hand at any given moment to be in community with, to discuss theology with and people to ask prayer from and to pray for.  Social media isn’t an extension of the “real world”, it is just part of the “real world”.

Social media and choice

My wife shared an article with me about Eli Pariser’s  book The Filter Bubble.    The internet appears at first glance to be an egalitarian place that operates in the same manner for all.  However, when we delve deeper we discover dynamic algorithms and data collection that is designed to tailors our experience.  Every time I use Facebook and click on a link to a guitar shop it remembers my choices and changes what it will show me in the future.  From my perspective this is a good thing for me as I now no longer receive adverts for Justin Bieber or Justin Timberlake or any other Justins.

However, this isn’t the extent to which these choices are made.  The information isn’t always gathered through explicit choices made by the user.  For example, Google doesn’t produce the same results for each person.  It collects all sorts of information about you from your location and previous activity and makes decisions about what results it thinks you should see.

Why should this matter?  Surely it is a good thing that I am not bombarded with information I have no desire to look at?  If the internet is picking the articles that it thinks I need to see, I don’t waste my time looking at any more Justins!

Here is the problem – I choose my friends on Facebook on the basis that I like them.  They have similar interests to me.  I also choose who I follow on Twitter.  They share similar interests to me and the generally post links to articles I agree with.  I read the blogs of people who write about the subjects I’m interested in with an engaging style.  And now my search engine brings me local articles from the sort of websites I’m likely to agree with.  Hooray!!

Does this mean that the inevitable conclusion of this trend is that when I am an octogenarian I will only ever see articles about Alt:Worship, Guns N’ Roses and David Mitchell videos?!

This all sounds very tame doesn’t it.  What if my personality was amplified into one giant irritating version of myself?  What if I was a politically radical person?  What if the internet merely reinforced my prejudices?  What if it didn’t just do it through my conscious choices but also through the decisions it makes on my behalf?

Is this starting to sound like an Isaac Asimov novel yet?

How could this impact upon The Church (TM)?

We can’t deny the church has a reputation for being a notoriously polarised institution.  People tend to huddle together in almost tribal theological groupings.  We have spent two millennia creating smaller and smaller groupings of people who we consider ‘orthodox’ whether you consider yourself to be “Evangelical”, “Catholic”, “Biblical”, “Freshly expressed”…..

Picture of a circle on Google+ called Sound Theology

In my use of social media am I creating a circle of people I want to hear from?  The internet gears itself to tell me what I want to hear.  The constant battle I need to make is to challenge myself to meet the other, to break out of my comfort zones and cross the divide.  To continue to strive to become what Brian McLaren refers to as “Generously Orthodox” .

About Robb

Robb is a priest and a vicar in the Church of England. His academic interest is in liturgy, alt:worship and the emerging church and is particularly keen on exploring the sacramantal within worship. He lives in Yorkshire and has a passion for heavy metal, playing in a pub band and riding a Harley.